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Russian Ark

In his previous films (Mother and Son, Moloch, Taurus), Russian director Aleksandr Sokurov has often focused on the relationship between history and art, and the effect of this relationship on contemporary culture. He has a firmly-held belief in ‘each artist sensing a whole civilisation of artists standing behind him’, and says that modern art, including cinema, must be evaluated according to the standards established by past generations. The historical pageant of Russian Ark is a further exploration of these themes, but the new film addresses its audience in a much more accessible and engaging manner than Sokurov’s frequently oblique earlier work.
An unseen and unnamed narrator (Sokurov himself) from modern times apparently wakes to find himself in the world-renowned Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg. Here he meets a dignified figure in black (Sergey Dreiden), a nineteenth century French diplomat who holds cynical views on Russian history, its cultural achievements and independence. Together the two explore the museum, discussing the country’s cultural heritage and frequently disagreeing with each other as they bear witness to random incidents from throughout the period of the Tsarist Empire. These events often show the grand figures of Russian history at their worst, or most banal: Peter the Great horsewhipping a general; Pushkin merely ascending a staircase; Catherine the Great seeking to relieve herself; and, most poignantly, the last Tsar of Russia breakfasting with his family, wholly unaware of what is to come.
Although Sokurov professes himself interested only in classical cinematic form and content, and is known to wince at any suggestion of his film being ‘experimental’, the most astonishing feature of Russian Ark is that its entire duration is taken up with a single unbroken shot. In a heroic technical feat, the German cinematographer Tilman Buttne (Run Lola Run) carried a high-definition video camera mounted on a Steadicam from room to room for some 1300 metres, winding through the Hermitage in one long sequence shot to achieve what the director has described as a film taking place ‘in a single breath’. Due to restrictions placed on filming by the Hermitage, Sokurov and Buttne were allowed only one actual shooting day (the shortest of the year) to utilise a cast and crew of over a thousand, whose movements had to be choreographed around the camera.
The organisation involved in the filming represents some kind of logistical marvel in itself, but the effect on screen is astonishing and has be seen to be appreciated. This is a triumph for digital filmmaking, since such a long single take couldn’t be accomplished on 35mm film. At the same time, the use of state-of-the-art equipment ensures that the quality of the image is comparable to 35mm and doesn’t look anything like those blurry ‘Dogme’ exercises that have given ‘digital’ filmmaking a bad name with many cinemagoers.
Yet the stunning technical and formal achievements of the film do not come at the expense of content. Sokurov’s use of the broadest of canvases allows him to address not only the thematic concerns close to his heart, but also to emphasise the unity of Russian experience in a time of extreme national fragmentation. Structurally, the film alternates between small, intimate moments and magnificent set-pieces such as the Russian court receiving a petition from the Shah of Persia. The climax is a spectacular recreation of the final Great Royal Ball of 1913.
Russian Ark’s beautiful location, sumptuous production design, swirling camera movements and moments of levity are a far cry from Sokurov’s austere earlier work. But in its concern with addressing the past, present and future as a unified whole, it is very characteristic of the Russian director who has been acclaimed as Tarkovsky’s heir. In the final analysis, this magnificent film is a thought-provoking vision of history that’s as valid for what it has to say as for the way it says it.
(Russia-Germany, 2002. English subtitles. Colour. Dolby digital stereo. 96 mins.)

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